Feature: Drones as a disruptive technology


Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, are as ubiquitous as pigeons and are disrupting a broad spectrum of industries, from deliveries to search and rescue, agriculture, photography and adventure sports.

This was one of the central themes of the recent Drone Conference at Emperor’s Palace, which saw industry experts come together to examine the state of the UAV industry and its future trajectory.

Independent technology consultant Jacques Swart provided insight into some of the remarkable advances in UAV technology and how it has the potential to change different industries. He cited a 2017 Price Waterhouse Coopers study that said that the drone services market is worth $127 billion, including $45 billion for infrastructure; $32 billion for agriculture, $13 billion for transport, $10 billion for security, $8.8 billion for media and entertainment, $6.8 billion for insurance, $6.3 billion for telecommunication and $4.3 billion for mining. He noted that these figures have only increased since the study.

Swart told delegates that computing technology is advancing rapidly and that breakthroughs are being made in the field of artificial intelligence. For example, UAVs are being trained to navigate complex forest trails using imagery alone, and not GPS. They are also being taught to sense and avoid other aircraft using computer vision.

Artificial intelligence is being used to enhance flight endurance, and is being used to identify thermals so that they can be used to enhance lift.

Swart said there are myriad uses for UAVs, such as surveying to warehouse management – UAVs are now being used to find barcoded items in warehouses, and even retrieve items from warehouse shelves. Security is another application where artificial intelligence is making strides – for example, artificial intelligence is used for number plate and facial recognition as well as behavioural analysis – security cameras are now able to identify suspicious behaviour based on body language and such technology is making its way onto UAVs.

New developments include UAVs for enclosed spaces or underground, such as the Tilt Ranger, which has been designed to map mine shafts. It uses rotors as well as four wheels to roll, drive or fly. It uses cameras and lidar (laser radar) to map its environment and navigate. A similar concept is applied to the Elios UAV, which is enclosed in a lightweight cage, making it suitable for inspecting tight spaces.

Swart said that UAVs are benefitting from rapid technological advances in other areas, such as research into biomimetics. For example, Harvard researchers have created a UAV to mimic a bee in the hope of using drones to pollinate flowers as a result of the 30% decline in bee populations around the world in the last decade. This UAV has tiny titanium wings and special fibres to collect pollen. Flights have been tethered so far due to the limited power supply.

Swart noted that the FLIR Black Hornet UAV is remarkable in that it is incredibly small, fitting into the palm of one’s hand, but it is very vulnerable to wind as it uses a conventional helicopter layout. Researchers in the UK turned to nature for inspiration and have created a tiny flapping wing UAV with four wings that is extremely tolerant to turbulent air conditions, is highly manoeuvrable and quiet.

Biomimetics, where technology emulates nature, is evident in other areas, Swart said, such as foveated imaging that replicates the vision of an eagle – eagles can spot a rabbit from three kilometres away, which is equivalent of a human watching an ant from the tenth story of a building. Foveated lens cameras use multiple lenses to vary the resolution across the image, typically providing higher resolution in the centre.

Another example of biomimicry is the creation of a robotic bird of prey, which is used to mimic falcons and eagles to keep birds away from airports. The flapping wing design has been introduced at an airport in Canada. Such robot birds are also used in the agricultural industry to deter birds from destroying crops. They can also be used to prevent bird strikes on wind farms.

Swart said the use of UAVs to solve technology problems is escalating exponentially, but South Africa’s regulatory authorities are responding slower than most. These sentiments were echoed by most companies present, such as Rocketmine, which expressed concern over the long delays in getting a remotely piloted aerial system operators certificate (ROC) from the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA), which can take up to eighteen months. Registering UAVs is also not cheap – it costs around R60 000 to get a license to operate a UAV and R200-300 000 for a decent commercial aircraft, with most of the cost being the sensor.

Since the SACAA introduced regulations to govern the commercial use of UAVs several years ago, users have been frustrated at the time taken to process registrations. South Africa is the only country in the world that requires UAV operators to obtain an Air Services License to run a UAV business. In other countries this type of license is only required for manned commercial operations. As a result, the Commercial Unmanned Aircraft Association of South Africa (CUAASA) has brought a class action lawsuit worth over R1 billion against the SACAA to try and speed up the regulatory process and hopes to get the registration process down to 90 days. The industry body estimates the SACAA’s regulatory red tape has cost the industry around R2 billion.

Nevertheless, despite the difficult regulations and high costs, the local UAV industry is growing rapidly. Economist Dr Roelof Botha estimated the local UAV industry’s turnover at R2 billion in 2017, supporting over 30 000 formal and informal jobs.

Simon Robinson, CEO of Drone Racing Africa (DRA), said that UAVs are here to stay, with the industry supporting an estimated 33 000 jobs in 2017. He sees UAVs making an impact across different industries such as construction, agriculture, mining, surveying etc.

Pilot training must not be an obstacle for industry growth, he said, with the SACAA being both the biggest detractor and biggest enabler for the industry. He recognises the importance of licensing UAVs, but maintains that UAVs need to be recognised as a different subset within the aviation environment and laws must be adjusted accordingly. It is no good treating a 2 kg UAV like an airliner, for example.

Robinson said the UAV industry has the potential to create thousands of jobs, with qualified UAV pilots potentially earning R15 000 a month. Drone Racing Africa is meeting the demand for new pilots by running its Junior Racing Programme course, Drone Proficiency Course, Drone Competency Course, Remote Pilot License course and other courses such as aerial cinematography, beyond visual line of sight etc.

Drone Racing Africa spends much of its time educating people about UAVs and runs online courses and basic competency certificates for private UAV pilots – many retailers have approached the company to provide training for small UAVs.

An example of the growth in the industry comes from local company Rocketmine, which focuses mainly on the mining sector and offers services such as survey and mapping, blast monitoring, industrial inspection, security and surveillance, game counting, perimeter control, mine stockpile management, storm damage evaluation, solar panel inspection etc. Rocketmine has 54 aircraft in Africa, with operations in South Africa and Ghana. It will soon be entering the Ivory Coast market. The company’s clients include UNICEF, Aurecon, GMC, Glencore, BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and MacMahon. It recently became the second UAV operator in South Africa to obtain a beyond visual line of sight license from the SACAA for commercial flights.

The government is also embracing UAV technology – the Gauteng department of infrastructure recently launched a programme to use UAVs to monitor construction projects. The initiative was launched in Etwatwa, Ekurhuleni in May this year. Gauteng’s infrastructure department will deliver 340 projects over the next three years, with UAVs monitoring progress and safety compliance.

The recent Drone Conference also looked at other topics relevant to the industry, such as UAVs for wildlife conservation; crop management; sensor payloads and surveying and mapping. Dr Corne Eloff, from Airbus Defence and Space, told delegates the emphasis is now not so much on hardware but on software and data processing, and dealing with information overload. Airbus has developed its One Atlas system that integrates UAV, satellite and other information into one source and manages data.

Although primarily focussed on the satellite sector, Airbus is also developing the Zephyr High Altitude Pseudo-Satellite, which is designed to stay aloft for 100 days. It sensors would give much higher resolution than satellites as it flies in the upper atmosphere.

Adam Rosman, Managing Director of Aerial Monitoring Solutions, looked at the advantages and disadvantages of using UAVs versus conventional aircraft. Some of the advantages he highlighted included the cost reduction (R7-8 000 an hour for a helicopter versus R30-50 an hour for a small UAV), faster deployment speeds, size and noise reduction and payload flexibility. Limits include short endurance, regulatory hurdles, susceptibility to weather and limited payload.

According to Rosman, around 80% of UAVs in operation are multi-rotors built by Chinese manufacturer DJI. Fixed wing designs have longer endurance and are more efficient but need more infrastructure and carry a smaller payload. Hybrid UAVs are now going mainstream, he said, with aircraft like the locally developed Alti Transition being able to take off vertically with rotors and fly horizontally with fixed wings.

With regard to UAVs being used in the security sector, Rosman noted that they are not silver bullets and need to be used in a layered approach for best results. For example, when Aerial Monitoring Solutions used UAVs for counter-poaching, they were able to substantially reduce the instances of rhino poaching (from 50-60 incidents a year to one) but only by working in conjunction with rangers on the ground and security personnel at points of entry. He said a growing concern was protecting the operators as poachers and other criminals have learnt to target them.